Galen and Roman medicine – doctors in ancient Rome

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Roman surgical instruments

Roman surgical instruments

Roman medicine is really West Asian and African medicine. That’s because most of the great doctors of the Roman Empire lived in West Asia (in Turkey and Syria), or in Africa (in Egypt), not in Europe. These doctors started from earlier EgyptianIndian, and Greek medical research. Like Egyptian doctors, Roman doctors like the Sicilian Scribonius Largus organized their medical books starting with the head and moving down to the toes.

Like the Greeks, Roman doctors believed in the four humors and the power of blood-letting. That was mostly wrong. But Roman doctors also used many Indian herbal medicines. Some they grew in the Roman Empire and others they brought by ship from India. And some of those Indian medicines probably did help cure people. Roman doctors used surgery to help with trachoma (eyelid scarring from infections), and to remove a fetus that had died unborn so that the mother wouldn’t die too. Scribonius Largus and Dioscurides used live electric fish to give shocks to patients, to cure chronic pain from headaches or gout, and possibly hemorrhoids too.

Absinthe, from Dioscurides' book on medicines (500s AD)

Absinthe, from Dioscurides’ book on medicines (500s AD)

In the 100s AD, the Egyptian scientist Ptolemy did medical research on how people’s eyes worked. Ptolemy thought (wrongly) that invisible rays came out of your eyes to hit objects, like radar, instead of light entering your eyes.

But the most important Roman doctor was Galen (GAY-len), who lived in Pergamom (in modern Turkey) at the same time that Ptolemy was working in Egypt. Galen eventually moved to Rome, where he wrote a book about medicine. A shortened version of Galen’s book was the main medical book that doctors used in Europe for the next thousand years and more.

A woman pharmacist and her enslaved assistant

A pharmacist and her enslaved assistant selling medicines

Like Ptolemy, Galen wrote his book to show that the Skeptics were wrong. He thought people really could use their senses to understand how the world worked. Galen repeated a lot of Hippocrates‘ ideas about the four humors, which was all wrong. But he also added a lot of observations about how the human body worked that he learned from looking at the insides of human bodies. And some of this was right. Galen saw the insides of people by looking at wounded soldiers and gladiators. He also cut open a lot of animals including macaques (a kind of monkey) to see how bodies worked.

Galen wrote the first good description of the different parts of people’s eyes. He certainly knew more about anatomy than Hippocrates did. Galen knew what the lungs of people with tuberculosis looked like. He understood that the heart pushed blood around the body, for instance. But he thought that air entered the blood within the heart, instead of in the lungs. Galen knew that nerves controlled the movement of the body, and that people thought with their brains. Galen may have invented the use of catgut – animal intestines – to sew his patients up after surgery. But he still thought that blood-letting was a good idea.

Most Roman doctors kept on bleeding people for fevers, and treating them with both local and imported Indian medicines. In the 500s AD, the Roman army doctor Dioscurides – who was, like Galen, from Asia Minor (modern Turkey) – recommended using pepper to fight off coughs, colds, and fevers. Dioscurides thought ginger and cardamom (and also pepper) were antidotes for poisons. He used ginger to help digestion, and cardamom to fight infections. The Romans also used beleric and emblic for fatigue, and for general health, the way we take vitamins. All of these came from India.

Other medical treatments were simpler, like filling a wool bag with salt or millet and heating it to make a hot compress for sore muscles (though we usually use rice now).

Learn by doing: dissect a worm to see the organs
More about Islamic medicine

Bibliography and further reading about Roman medicine:

Islamic medicine
More Roman science
Ancient Rome
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By | 2017-09-04T21:46:35+00:00 September 4th, 2017|Romans, Science|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Galen and Roman medicine – doctors in ancient Rome. Quatr.us Study Guides, September 4, 2017. Web. November 20, 2017.

About the Author:

Karen Carr
Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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